REVIEW: Nina Nastasia: The Blackened Air
Nina Nastasia: The Blackened Air [Touch and Go, 2002]
Three words? Moss, songs, storms.
Nina Nastasia is a sorceress who stands at the point of an island, with eyes fierce as a cat. Her folk-songs skip like stones over the liquid mirror of the lake, they speak the shared language of men and foxes, they send the sun in a dazzling arc across the sky. The spirit that lives in this album would walk surely, firmly, into a house blackened and burning; branches and ferns would whisper with every step, crackling under-foot, and ash-dark crows would fall from the trees, gather like stormclouds, and fill the air.
Where Gillian Welch's Time is filled with regret, warmed with memory, The Blackened Air moves ever-upward with the urgency of a forest, weaving acoustic portraits that bob en route downstream, that scorch leaves as they follow the zigzag of lightning. Nastasia takes Cat Power and slow-brews it with Veda Hille, adding Rachel's and Clem Snide for spice. Traditional, yearning ballads like "In the Graveyard" recall Sarah Harmer's bluegrass excursions; "Ocean"'s ominous, slow-shivering descent draws up a thunderous, dark-eyed vision of Mirah or even Tom Waits. Everywhere, a similar cycle of creation and destruction: accordion, mandolin and saw paint glowing flowers, wooden porches, and then they waver, shudder, and are blasted apart by vigorous strokes of cello and violin. Something stringed screams behind the march of drums as Nastasia sings: "toppling houses, trees and towns / my crying makes everyone drown / I die right in the ocean / just like a wave."
These pieces are short and beautiful, the words lyrical and pungent. Despite her New York residency, Nastasia sings the rhythm of the countryside with flawless confidence - it's audible from the lush, pastoral singsong of "The Same Day" to the panoramic townhall stomp of "Run, All You". Elsewhere, she stands like Lear, calling down the thunder. Her band - especially cellist Stephen Day - erects sound portraits that swing with accordion ease from the lovely to the sinister. Steve Albini's nuanced production brings out the individual voices of each instrument, weaving them in and out of the listener's consciousness. Although Nastasia's voice is not virtuosic or particularly moving in-and-of-itself, she uses it quite well, lingering gently on the ends of words, lilting as she draws out particular images. "So Little" is a particularly vivid example, quietly gorgeous, and Mirah could learn a great deal from the way Nastasia hides great meaning in small vocal quirks. Not all of the songs are created equal - "Been So Long" clings too close to country ballad precedents, and some, like the unremarkable "Desert Fly", fade from memory almost as soon as they finish - but other tracks, like the hallelujah chorus of "Little Angel" or the gale march of "Ocean", are totally overpowering. Overall, The Blackened Air is a near masterpiece - an overwhelmingly original vision of Americana, full of howling dogs, lost heads, floodlights and fire.